Cognitive Coaching

Six mindset shifts trainers should make.

Posted Sep 29, 2018

Most trainers and coaches mean well. It’s just that they hold mistaken beliefs about cognitive skills — better decision making, accurate sensemaking, more creative improvising, faster detection of problems. Underlying all of these skills is the attainment of expertise. Too many trainers and coaches don’t understand these kinds of cognitive abilities and rely on instructional techniques that can actually get in the way of successful performance and the development of expertise.

This essay explores ways to help trainers and coaches become more effective in developing cognitive skills. Trainers and coaches have other responsibilities — motivating people, evaluating them, and so forth. We aren’t going to get into these responsibilities here. Our topic is how to get people up to speed more quickly so that they think more clearly and show more mental agility. 

This essay is aimed at trainers and coaches in industry, sports, first responders (e.g., police and firefighters), military, healthcare, petrochemical plant operators. All of these communities can benefit from having their trainers do a better job. The ideas in this essay are built around conversations with Joseph Borders and Ron Besuijen during a project we collaborated on to delve into the mental models of panel operators in petrochemical plants. This project was sponsored by Dave Strobhar and Lisa Via, at Beville Engineering, for the Center for Operator Performance. 

The essay is divided into two sections. The first section examines the mindset shifts trainers and coaches will need to make. The second section provides some suggestions for trainers and coaches about what to watch out for as they adopt the new mindsets.

Section One: Changing mindsets. In a previous essay I described the power of mindsets and how they shape what we see, shape our interpretations, and shape our reactions. Most mindsets can be boiled down to a core belief. Therefore, by attacking a flawed belief we can achieve a mindset shift. If a person is trapped by a dysfunctional belief we can show that person the limits and inadequacies of the belief while describing an alternate belief that is more promising. 

Here are six mindset shifts that should help trainers and coaches improve cognitive skills.

  1. From criticism to curiosity. The belief in question is that the job of the trainer is to spot mistakes and correct them right away. One senior trainer told me that this was his mindset starting out, but over the years he had learned to be curious. Early on in his career as a trainer, if someone made a mistake he would happily rebuke them, which felt good but didn’t seem to be achieving very much; over time his mindset shifted and now if someone makes a mistake, he wonders why and tries to get to the bottom of it, working with the trainee to figure it out. This new mindset is making him much more successful. The people he is training make much faster progress. Too many trainers are just annoyed by mistakes rather than seeing them as opportunities. These trainers interpret mistakes as signs that the trainee wasn’t paying attention, or didn’t care, or maybe that the trainer did a poor job. In any event, with the criticism-oriented mindset, mistakes are blemishes. However, the curiosity-oriented mindset views mistakes as opportunities. If the trainer adopts a curiosity-oriented mindset, he/she can hopefully figure out what is confusing the trainee and help to clarify the trainee’s thinking. Trainers should be seeking to harvest mistakes not avoid them or make trainees feel guilty about making them.
  2. From following procedures to gaining tacit knowledge. The belief in question is that virtually all jobs can be boiled down to procedures and steps and the job of the trainer is to teach these steps. While procedures are important and necessary, they aren’t sufficient. Expertise is not a matter of following steps. Just about all challenging tasks have too many contingencies and possibilities to be handled by procedures. Expertise is about what we do when the procedures don’t clearly apply — when we have to use our judgment. Expertise is about gaining tacit knowledge — knowledge that can’t be captured by procedures and steps. Tacit knowledge includes noticing subtle cues, seeing patterns, spotting anomalies, and using our mental models of how things work and how they don’t work. Trainees want to buy into the procedures belief — they want to take refuge in learning more and more procedures, adding them to their toolbox, trusting that procedures will take care of just about any problem they might face. The trainer has to help the trainee get beyond this procedural mindset and move onto the path to expertise.
  3. From getting through the material to encouraging curiosity. The belief in question is that most of what the trainee needs to learn is in the powerpoints and lecture material. Therefore, the trainer has to make sure he/she gets through all this material. Class discussions and questions just chew up time and get in the way of covering the material. As a result, trainers often unwittingly block curiosity on the part of the trainees. They squash curiosity in a few ways (I am indebted to Ed Noble at Nova Chemicals for these observations): They discourage questions. They use ridicule, even with facial expressions, to make trainees afraid of looking dumb. They overwhelm the trainees with details. They introduce so much complexity so early that the trainee stops being curious and retreats into a passive stance of desperately trying to remember most of the material being shotgunned. While there are no easy ways to foster trainees’ curiosity, you can see that there are many ways to stifle curiosity. Good trainers have learned to control their tendencies that diminish the curiosity of their students. 
  4. From providing thorough explanations to providing focused explanations. The belief in question is that the trainer should be lecturing trainees with all the details and contingencies that might come up. As we saw in the previous paragraph, excessive details and complexity can stifle curiosity. Good trainers have mastered the skill of diagnosing the reasons why trainees are confused or surprised. Instead of spewing a canned lecture the good trainers can diagnose why the trainee is surprised — what belief has been violated, what assumption has been called into question. Then the good trainers can speak directly to that belief, that part of the trainee’s mental model that needs adjustment. The trainers are asking themselves, “What assumption are these trainees making that is hanging them up?” Good trainers can provide a focused explanation instead of a comprehensive one.
  5. From explaining to discovering. The belief in question is that the job of the trainer is to explain things. Often that is the case but trainees learn more when they discover things for themselves. The challenge for trainers and coaches is to craft exercises and experiences that enable discoveries. That is much harder than just offering an explanation.
  6. From evaluating to training. The belief in question is that during the training period the trainers should assess which trainees are struggling and should be dropped from the program — the trainers can save everyone a lot of effort by culling those who aren’t a good fit. The problem with this approach is that it severely interferes with training, as I explained in an earlier essay. If I know you are watching me to see if I measure up, I am going to be super defensive and guarded during training. I am going to be careful not to get caught doing anything stupid. I am NOT going to be exploring different strategies. I am NOT going to be eager to get feedback on what I did wrong. If I do get critical feedback I am going to try to make excuses rather than take it in. By combining training with personnel evaluation, organizations interfere with the training process. Organizations do need to evaluate performance. Rather than mix evaluation and training they would do better to set up special test trials and tell the trainees which these are. In this way, trainees know when they have to be on their guard and when they can relax and learn as much as possible. 

Section Two: Seeing the invisible.

If expertise is based on tacit knowledge and tacit knowledge is, by definition, hard to describe or notice, what can trainers and coaches do? Here are a few suggestions.

Subtle cues. Be on the lookout for visual and auditory and even tactile cues (e.g., mechanical vibrations) that the trainees need to notice.  It’s hard for trainers, for experts, for anyone, to clearly explain what subtle cues they are picking up on. That’s why trainers find it so tempting to simply explain the procedures. But these subtle cues are critical, so trainers can try to be alert to them during operations and bring them to the trainees’ attention. Even if the trainee can’t make a perceptual discrimination, knowing that experts can make this discrimination can motivate the trainee to practice.  (See the work of Anders Ericsson on deliberate practice). One Navy Electronic Warfare Coordinator I interviewed explained that in his early career he couldn’t distinguish the signal profiles of two large aircraft — it might have been a KC-135 and a Boeing 737 (I don’t remember). He knew that the experienced EWCs could tell the difference in signal signature, and so he became determined to do the same. Therefore, whenever an airplane of that approximate size appeared he became extra vigilant trying to predict which it was, a KC-135 or a Boeing 737, and then he used other sources to check on his judgment. In less time than he expected, he acquired the skill he needed.

Hindsight perspective. Another exercise for identifying relevant cues is to use an After-Action Review of a situation, regardless of whether the trainee handled it well or poorly. The trainer can ask, “With hindsight, what should you have been paying more attention to?” 

Anticipating. Instead of hindsight, what about using foresight. Many trainees get captured by what is happening right in front of them and fail to think ahead. Trainers can pause the action and ask “What is likely to be going on in x number of minutes?” In other words, the trainer can try to encourage a prospective mindset, a habit of mind to imagine what might happen next, either a likely turn of events or a dangerous turn of events.

Shifting focus. Here is another mindset shift the trainer can try to foster — seeing the big picture. Trainees often get captivated by the micro-details of what they are working on, tunneling into the specifics, and forget to look up and take stock of what else is going on. We see this tendency in aviation, in operating a petrochemical plant, and in other domains. The skilled decision makers have learned from experience, often bitter experience, to shake loose of the micro-details and come up for air every now and again. This shifting focus is another habit of mind to try to inculcate. The trainer might be on the lookout for times when the trainee is staying micro for too long and either encourage a temporary shift in focus or, if possible, introduce an event in the scenario or simulation to “punish” the trainee who failed to scan the big picture frequently enough.

Fixation. We all have the tendency to fixate. When we are trying to make sense of a confusing situation, we usually cast about for explanations and the first one that seems plausible captures us. Instead of telling students to keep an open mind, which is actually bad advice, trainers can be on the lookout for times when a trainee jumps to a conclusion and then holds on to it even though it is incorrect. Remember — there’s no shame in jumping to the wrong initial hypothesis. Fixation is a problem when we hold on to that incorrect hypothesis despite mounting evidence that it is wrong. Fixation happens when we explain away the anomalous evidence rather than becoming worried or at least curious. So the trainer can try to cultivate a habit of mind to become curious about anomalies instead of discarding them. If a trainee is going down a garden path, impervious to warning signs, the trainer can note all the warning signs the trainee missed and use the After-Action Review to let trainees discover how they blinded themselves. Trainees who have just messed up are usually very open to tracing where they went wrong.

Hypothesis Testing. To help trainees adopt the curiosity-oriented habit of mind discussed in the previous paragraph, instructors can discuss afterwards, what types of tests the trainees could have performed. What kinds of data were readily available to test that initial hypothesis? What kinds of changes were expected if that hypothesis was correct — and did they happen? The skilled decision makers I have observed were very good at testing their hypotheses when they noticed some discrepancies.

Workarounds. The stronger our procedural mindset the stronger our belief that there is a “right” procedure to handle all kinds of difficult conditions, and our job is to recall what that procedure is. But if we want people to be more resilient we want them to be aware of alternate tactics. We want them to notice possibilities. Instructors can monitor their trainees to see how flexible they are, and how aware of workarounds. In After-Action Reviews, when the pressure is off, instructors can go back over the incidents and reflect with the trainees about other options and about contingencies in case the typical actions are blocked.

In conclusion, this essay has described six mindset shifts that can help trainers do a better job of getting cognitive skills across, and a set of practices to go along with these mindset shifts. The essay has concentrated on working with trainees during normal operations, but the ideas are also relevant to the classroom, and also to simulation exercises and scenario-based training.